Movie Love (on CINÉMA CINÉMAS, 1982-1991)

From Moving Image Source [movingimagesource.us], posted March 5, 2009. The last time I checked, the box set Cinéma Cinémas was still available from French Amazon, for 25.56 Euros. — J.R.

How does one distinguish American cinephilia from the original, hardcore French brand? Based on an exchange I had with French critic Raymond Bellour and several other friends a dozen years ago — a round of letters first published in the French film magazine Trafic that later grew into a collection in English that I co-edited with Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia — there’s some disagreement about how serious a role French cinema actually plays in “classic” (i.e., French) cinephilia. According to Raymond, spurred in part by remarks from the late Serge Daney — a mutual friend and the founder of Trafic — modern French cinephilia was from the outset basically American, as suggested by the archetypal question, “How can one be a Hitchcocko-Hawksian?”:

It’s a question of theory, but even more of territory. This is what necessarily divides me from Jonathan, in whom cinephilia was born, like in everyone else, through the nouvelle vague, but who, as an American, takes the nouvelle vague itself as an object of cinephilia — whereas the cinephile, in the historical and French sense, trains his sights on the American cinema as an enchanted and closed world, a referential system sufficient to interpret the rest.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Extras, Promos, Prices

 From Cinema Scope issue 39, Summer 2014. — J.R.

providence-kitchen

 

I shelled out $56.19 in US dollars (including postage) to acquire the definitive and restored, director-approved DVD of Providence (1977) from French Amazon, and I hasten to add that this was money well spent. Notwithstanding the passion and brilliance of Alain Resnais’ first two features, Providence is in many ways my favourite of his longer works, quite apart from the fact that it’s the only one in English. And I can’t ascribe this preference simply to the contribution of David Mercer (1928-1980). I recently resaw the only other Mercer-scripted film I’m familiar with, Karel Reisz’s Morgan!,  and aside from the wit of its own sarcastic dialogue I mainly found it just as flat and tiresome as I did in 1966, for reasons that are well expounded in Dwight Macdonald’s contemporary review (reprinted in his collection On Movies).

 

I haven’t yet been able to see The Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter), Resnais’ swan song, but clearly part of what gives Providence even more resonance now, writing less than a month after Resnais’ death, is the theme it shares with his penultimate feature, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2013): an old writer facing his own death, and trying to create some form of art in relation to it.… Read more »

The Saddest Music In The World

From the Chicago Reader (May 14, 2004). This is probably my favorite Maddin feature to date. — J.R.

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Mannerist film antiquarian Guy Maddin takes a bold step forward with this 2003 feature, a comic/melodramatic musical enhanced by his flair for expressionist studio shooting (in grainy black and white, with selected scenes in two-strip Technicolor). The project originated as a script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro; revising extensively, Maddin and George Toles, his usual collaborator, turn it into an allegory about Canada’s colonial relationship with the U.S. In the depths of the Depression, a Winnipeg beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) launches an international contest to come up with the saddest music in the world. Competing for the U.S. is her former lover (Mark McKinney), a brassy Broadway producer; for Serbia the producer’s older brother (Ross McMillan), who grieves for his dead son and vanished amnesiac wife (Maria de Madeiros); and for Canada both men’s father (David Fox), a surgeon who’s drunkenly amputated Rossellini’s legs. Not to be missed. 99 min. (JR)

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Lanzmann’s Second Thoughts: THE LAST OF THE UNJUST

From the February 2014 Artforum; their title was “Beyond Good and Evil”. — J.R.

Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, 2013, 16 mm and 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 218 minutes. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein.

 

THE LAST OF THE UNJUST, the latest of Claude Lanzmann’s footnotes and afterthoughts to his 1985 masterpiece, Shoah, functions even more than that earlier film as a dialectical palimpsest, so its successive layers — which remain in perpetual dialogue with one another — should be identified at the outset:

December 1944: Benjamin Murmelstein, a Vienna rabbi, is appointed by the Nazis as the third (and last) Jewish “elder” of Theresienstadt (Terezin, in Czech), a “model” or “showcase” ghetto set up in the former Czech Republic in 1941, his two predecessors having been executed the previous May and September. Murmelstein retains this position through the war’s end. Then, after spending eighteen months in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis, he is acquitted of all charges (although still widely despised as a traitor) and moves to Rome.

1961: Murmelstein publishes a book in Italian, Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann, describing the suffering of the ghetto’s inhabitants.

1975: Lanzmann films an interview with Murmelstein over a week in Rome — the first interview that he films for Shoah, although he later decides to discard it, donating the unedited footage to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.Read more »

Trying to Have Some Fun (QUILLS, SMOKING, & NO SMOKING)

From the December 15, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Quills

***

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Doug Wright

With Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, and Amelia Warner.

Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma.

No Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnes Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema.

Quills is an American adaptation of an American play about the famous 18th-century French libertine the Marquis de Sade, starring Australian, English, and American actors. It is also, in part, an unacknowledged mainstreaming of a more intellectual German play that became famous in the mid-1960s because of an exciting and inventive staging by avant-garde English director Peter Brook — Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, popularly known as Marat/Sade. (Brook’s 1966 film adaptation of this intensely theatrical play is a pale shadow of the original.)

Smoking and No Smoking – not a double bill but a pair of interactive features that can be seen in either order, both playing at Facets Multimedia Center this week — are French adaptations of a cycle of eight mainly comic English plays by Alan Ayckbourn.… Read more »

Two Movies for the Price of None [James Benning's UTOPIA]

From the Chicago Reader (December 18, 1998). — J.R.

Utopia title

Utopia

Rating *** A must see

Directed by James Benning

what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear you can verify this proposition by a simple experiment turn off the sound track of your television set and substitute an arbitrary sound track prerecorded on your tape recorder street sounds music conversation recordings of other television programs you will find that the arbitrary sound track seems to be appropriate and is in fact determining your interpretation of the film track on screen people running for a bus in piccadilly with a sound track of machine-gun fire looks like 1917 petrograde — William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

Although James Benning’s most recent experimental feature, Utopia, doesn’t literally reproduce Burroughs’s experiment, it does call it to mind. An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Benning has added a few ambient sounds, but otherwise you might say that Utopia is two separate movies — the images of one, the sound track of another — running on parallel tracks.… Read more »

Crying in Their Beer (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD)

This appeared in the May 14, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader, and occasioned one of the few thank-you notes I’ve received from a filmmaker for a review. I hope both Guy Maddin and those reading this will forgive me for immodestly reproducing his email: “Dear Jonathan: I usually try to avoid setting precedents that violate what should be a no-fly zone between critics and filmmakers, but I must say that your review of Saddest Music left me feeling understood at last!!! What a feeling. Thank you for supplying this euphoria. You also win bonus points for the Laura Riding discovery — I always liked her characters’ names. George Toles, who is terrified of reading reviews, will be thrilled to see his unsung name given its proper due. Not only that, you disabled Anthony Lane’s stinkbombs. A million thanks, Jonathan!!  Warmest, Guy“  – J.R.

The Saddest Music in the World

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Guy Maddin

Written by George Toles, Maddin, and Kazuo Ishiguro

With Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros,

David Fox, and Ross McMillan.

To Guy Maddin, every contemporary story that feels true is at bottom an amnesia story. — screenwriter George Toles

When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity.Read more »

Theme and Variations [THE LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE]

From the Chicago Reader, May 14, 1999. —J.R.

The Lovers of the Arctic Circle

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Julio Medem

With Fele Martinez, Najwa Nimri, Nancho Novo, Maru Valdivielso, Peru Medem, Sara Valiente, Victor Hugo Oliveira, and Kristel Diaz.

Julio Medem’s fourth feature is a love story spanning 17 years — from the time Otto and Ana first meet, as children in a Spanish school yard, to their improbable reunion in the wilds of northern Finland when they’re 25. But the film starts at the end rather than the beginning, and like the names of the two characters, the story can be read backward as well as forward. That story is told by Otto and Ana in alternate bursts, inflected mainly by how Otto views Ana and vice versa, skipping back and forth in time. To make things trickier, the two versions of what happens are sometimes at variance.

When The Lovers of the Arctic Circle joined Open Your Eyes at the Fine Arts last week, it became possible to conclude, with a sigh of relief, that the age of Pedro Almodovar was finally over. I don’t mean that Almodovar won’t continue to make movies or get American distribution, but that his brand of smart-aleck entertainment will no longer have to stand for the whole of Spanish cinema.… Read more »

The Lovers Of The Arctic Circle

From the Chicago Reader (May 4, 1999). — J.R.

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The best Spanish film I’ve seen in years, this 1998 feature by Julio Medem (Cows, The Red Squirrel, Earth), attractively shot in ‘Scope, is the story of two young lovers who first encounter one another at the age of eight, told from alternating viewpoints that after 17 years converge in Finland. The romantic style of the film commands attention as much as the story itself, which is shaped — like the names of the two lead characters, Otto and Ana — as a palindrome. The graceful jumping about in time and space may recall the early work of Alain Resnais, but the theme and ambience are Spanish to the core; Medem charts the crisscrossing destinies of the two leads with passion as well as lyricism. With Fele Martinez and Najwa Nimri. In Spanish with subtitles. R, 112 min. (JR)

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Moving (July-August 1977)

From Film Comment (July-August 1977). After I returned to the U.S. early that year after seven and a half years of living in Europe (Paris and London), my “Paris Journal” and “London Journal” column in Film Comment became “Moving,” a preoccupation that eventually yielded the title of my first book, Moving Places.

Note: the 35 mm screening of JEANNE DIELMAN alluded to here was set up by Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson on the University of California, San Diego campus while they were working on the last of their essays. -– J.R.

How to keep moving in the same way that this column must travel — from La Jolla, to Richard Corliss in Cannes, to Film Comment in New York, to wherever you happen to be reading it? Now that TV Guide generally has to take the place of Pariscope, [London’s] Time Out, the New York newspapers, shall I write about the breathneck beginning of Sirk’s SLEEP, MY LOVE, the parallels with Preminger’s WHIRLPOOL,a wonderful exchange between Don Ameche and Hazel Brooks (”Doesn’t sound like my girl…” “You have a lot of girls. This is one of them”), or scenes that unexpectedly and mysteriously take place in the rain?Read more »

Hollywood Low (The Best Movies of 1992)

From the Chicago Reader (January 8, 1993). — J.R.

A few years ago, world cinema received a shot in the arm from so-called glasnost movies from the former Soviet Union — pictures that had been shelved due to various forms of censorship, mostly political, and were finally seeing the light of day thanks to the relaxation or near dissolution of state pressures. The thought of an American glasnost may seem a little farfetched. But if we start to look at the awesome control exerted by multinational corporations over what we see, particularly in mainstream movies, the definition of what is and isn’t permissible — or, in business terms, what is “viable,” which in this country often comes to the same thing — may seem comparably restricted.

The best movies of 1992 weren’t exactly censored; but given the profound lack of media attention they received they would have achieved much more reality in most people’s minds if they had been. And nothing short of an American-style glasnost would give these films the cultural centrality they deserve. Only three of them received extended theatrical runs in Chicago, and perhaps only one or two got so much as a mention on Entertainment Tonight or in Time, Newsweek, or Entertainment Weekly.… Read more »

My Winnipeg

From the Chicago Reader (June 26, 2008). Criterion’s splendid new Blu-Ray of this film contains many juicy extras — including several recent Maddin shorts. — J.R.

mywinnipeg

It was just a matter of time before the eccentric independent Guy Maddin made a personal documentary about his Canadian hometown, and though he labels this a docu-fantasia, one still suspects he’s captured the real character of Winnipeg, especially its freezing weather. The movie is dominated by Maddin’s usual black-and-white photography, silent-movie syntax, and deadpan melodrama; he even casts Ann Savage [see first still below], who starred in Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic B movie Detour, as his own mother (her dialogue is credited to Maddin’s usual cowriter, George Toles). In the narration Maddin claims that Winnipeg has ten times as many sleepwalkers as any other city in the world, and though he’s surely making this up, it conveys his own sense of entrapment amid the town’s dreaminess. 80 min. (JR)

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Black Window: Cornell Woolrich and Movies

From Film Comment, September-October 1984. — J.R.

Rear Window, The Leopard Man [see first two photos above], Phantom Lady, The Window, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid. Considering that almost 30 features have been Cornell Woolrich adaptations, it seems a genuine anomaly that he should remain so shadowy a figure. He is as central to the thriller as Olaf Stapledon is to science fiction, and has been comparably eclipsed by a singularity that exceeds and surpasses some genre expectations while grievously falling short of certain others. Despite all the purple prose, tired rewrites, and preposterous plots that crop up in his fiction, perhaps no other writer handles suspense better, or gives it the same degree of obsessional intensity. More soft-boiled than hard-boiled in the depiction of his heroes and heroines, Woolrich nonetheless seems central to the overall pessimism of film noir in the violent contrasts of his moods and the dark tempers of his villains.

Webster’s New Collegiate gives three definitions of dreadful:  “(1) (adjective) inspiring fear or awe, (2) (adjective) distressing, shocking; very distasteful, (3) (noun) a morbidly sensational story or periodical; as, a penny dreadful.”  Woolrich assumes all these meanings and invents a few more of his own.… Read more »

Mississippi Mermaid

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). — J.R.

Francois Truffaut’s free adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s masochistically doom-ridden Waltz Into Darkness, in ‘Scope and color, yields an unsuccessful but sympathetic exploration of the filmmaker’s underrated darker side. A wealthy tobacco planter (Jean-Paul Belmondo) sends for a mail-order bride, and the mysterious lady who turns up is not the woman he was led to expect but Catherine Deneuve. Stately and languorous in its dreamy melancholy, though never entirely convincing, this 1969 picture is full of movie references — even the cabin at the end of Truffaut’s own Shoot the Piano Player figures centrally. But perhaps its ultimate justification is that of Truffaut’s other morbid films, such as The Bride Wore Black and The Green Room: a doomed romantic protagonist (in this case Belmondo) who goes the limit. In French with subtitles. 123 min. (JR)

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The Bride Wore Black

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). Twilight Time’s recent Blu-Ray of this film has a lot of interesting material about the changes made by Truffaut to Bernard Herrmann’s score.  — J.R.

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Despite the dedication of this 1967 film to Hitchcock and the use of his most distinguished collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, Francois Truffaut’s first Cornell Woolrich adaptation — the second was Mississippi Mermaid — is most memorable for lyrical moods and poetic flights of fancy that don’t seem especially Hitchcockian. Jeanne Moreau stalks gracefully through the film, wooing and dispatching a series of men like an avenging angel whose motivating obsession is spelled out only gradually; among her prey are Claude Rich, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Michel Lonsdale, and Charles Denner. Basically an exercice de style, and a good one at that. In French with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)

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